Dave Pelzer’s Mother: The Beginning of Her Abuse

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Child Called 'It'" by Dave Pelzer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who was Catherine Roerva? How did Dave Pelzer’s mother start abusing him?

Dave Pelzer’s mother, named Catherine Roerva or Catherine Pelzer, was not always abusive. Her behavior changed around the time David entered first grade.

Read more about how Dave Pelzer’s mother, Catherine Pelzer, changed and started abusing him.

The Change in Dave Pelzer’s Mother

Around the time David’s in first grade, Catherine Pelzer shifts dramatically. 

Dave Pelzer’s mother singles out David among his brothers for increasingly cruel punishments. The only explanation David can come up with is that his voice probably carries more than his brothers’ and that he often has the bad luck of being the only one to get caught when they all get into mischief. 

At first, Dave Pelzer’s mother punishes him with time out in a corner of his bedroom. After a while, she ups the punishment: Mother shoves David’s face into a mirror and then forces him to stand in front of it, looking at his reflection and repeating, “I’m a bad boy!”

At one point, Mother starts sending David and his brothers on endless searches through the house for some item she’s lost. The searches last for months and are never fruitful. Eventually, David is the only one she forces to search, and he dreams of finding the item and getting his mother’s praise and affection in return. 

Mother Dislocates David’s Arm

One day, while Father is at work, David hears Mother storming toward the room where he and his brothers are playing. Mother’s drunk, and she begins hitting David for no apparent reason.

Dave Pelzer’s mother punches him and pushes his hands away as he tries to use them to cover his face. David puts his left arm up over his face and Mother grabs it as she loses her balance and stumbles back a step. Suddenly they hear a pop. Mother acts like nothing has happened and walks away. 

David’s arm is limp. After dinner, Mother sends him to bed and tells him to sleep on the top bunk, although he usually sleeps on the bottom. She wakes him in the middle of the night and tells him he fell out of the top bunk and hurt his arm. Acting worried, Mother drives David to the hospital, where David recounts the bunk bed story to a skeptical doctor. David is too afraid to reveal the truth. 

Catherine Roerva Destroys David’s Happy Escapes

Mother’s terrorizing gradually encroaches on every part of life where David previously found joy.

One example is school, which David considers a retreat from his hell at home. One day, Dave Pelzer’s mother berates and beats him for supposedly failing the first grade, even though he’s sure he gets good scores on more assignments than any of his classmates. 

Another example is the family’s annual vacation: The summer after David’s first-grade year, his parents drop him off at his aunt’s house on their way to the campsite. David is shocked and heartbroken as he watches his family drive away. Ironically, David yearns to be with Mother, and he tries to run away from his aunt’s house to rejoin his family on their vacation; but when David and his family are back home and Dave Pelzer’s mother finds out what he’s done, she beats him for it. 

Finally, David’s once-magical Christmas turns into another way to punish and isolate him from the rest of the family. Whereas each of the boys had dozens of presents under the tree in years past, David now has only a handful of presents from other relatives. When Father sneaks a couple small gifts under the tree for David, Mother becomes furious and insists that Father has undermined her. 

A Turning Point for Dave Pelzer’s Mother: The Stove Incident

One day, the abuse reaches a turning point. 

Mother has David stand in the kitchen and remove his clothes. She tells him that she drove by his school during recess and saw him playing on the grass, which she forbade. David assures her that he hadn’t, but she responds by punching him in the face and turning on the gas burners. 

Mother grabs David’s arm and holds it over the flame. When David breaks free, Mother tells him to lie on top of the stove. He begs her to relent. 

David realizes that his only hope is to stall until his brother gets home, because Mother won’t be so extreme in front of anyone else. He asks questions to delay, and although his questions make Mother angrier and she starts hitting him, he knows that keeping himself off the stove is a victory. 

His brother gets home and David immediately snatches his clothes from the floor and runs to the garage, where he dresses and literally licks the burn on his arm. David realizes his quick thinking has saved him, and he feels elated and proud. David vows to take responsibility for his survival and outsmart Mother any way he can. 

Dave Pelzer’s Mother: The Beginning of Her Abuse

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full A Child Called 'It' summary:

  • How David Pelzer survived horrific abuse at the hands of his mother
  • How victims and survivors of abuse can find support and overcome their painful past
  • Why child abuse may go unnoticed by other adults

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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